By Sarah Plummer
Concerned citizens, legislators, community organizers, pastors, school officials and a representative from the Department of Health and Human Resources came to the conclusion that it will take a village to end child poverty in West Virginia.
Nearly 50 people attended the community forum on child poverty Saturday, one of dozens of meetings scheduled throughout the state by Our Children, Our Future: Campaign to End Child Poverty.
Over six months, the Campaign to End Child Poverty honed a list of 10 aspects of poverty on which to focus and address with the West Virginia Legislature — health care, violence prevention, stopping child care cuts, healthy foods in school, bipartisan prison reform that saves money, expanding truancy programs that work, parent leadership and mutual support, teen pregnancy, expanding health services, and stopping doctors from over-prescribing.
Raleigh County Superintendent Jim Brown noted that many of these topics overlap.
For instance, truancy often leads to students dropping out of school and 83 percent of high school dropouts end up in the penal system.
Brown said Raleigh ranks 41st in the state for student truancy. Since school began through Feb. 28, there have been a total of 110,408 lost instruction days due to absences and 1,539 guardians have been sent legal notices.
He said of those legal notices, eight resulted in a fine and one resulted in incarceration.
“That is a big number of notices with very little action occurring,” he said.
He shared a graph of this year’s attendance rates that shows attendance begins low (about 92 percent) in kindergarten and increases through sixth grade. The rates then steadily decrease to less than 90 percent for 12th-graders.
“We start out behind with kindergarten and first-graders. And that is when children have the least amount of control to get to school every day. Our attendance peaks around sixth grade when students are the most excited about school,” he said.
Overall county attendance is 92.47 percent, but it should be around 95 percent and 96 percent, Brown said.
One resident asked about truancy officers who patrol common hang-outs.
Brown said parents used to not know their kids were playing hooky but today you see many students out during the day with their parents.
Miller Hall, director of secondary education, said, “If we can’t get parents involved in their children’s education at a young age, how can older students be involved? The parents don’t see the value of sending their kids to school.”
Hall noted that 352 of those legal notices were sent to parents of elementary school students.
Scott Hill, a Raleigh County resident, suggested it become everyone’s responsibility to ask students why they aren’t in school, or even ask parents if they realize that 83 percent of high school dropouts end up in prison.
He asked what other ways the average person can help the educational system with this problem.
Brown said it is important to see the schools become community hubs, noting that many of the students having problems are not being raised by their parents, much less two parents.
“I’m sorry to use the cliché, but the community is going to have to raise these children. Even if it is mentoring a child, even as young as elementary children. Sometimes knowing they have someone who is going to come to school and ask how their weekend went or what they ate can make an impact,” he said.
Another attendee asked about mandating an educational component for those parents who receive welfare.
Dan Bailey, Raleigh County community service manager for DHHR, noted that only around 500 single parents in Raleigh County receive a check, although many assume that number is higher.
Moreover, he said those who do receive a check from the state are required to participate in a career education program.
Margaret Ann O’Neal, executive director of United Way of Southern West Virginia, asked how volunteers can get into schools.
Brown indicated the best way to volunteer through the school is through a church, business or organization in partnership with individual schools by contacting school principals.
He also noted that the schools in desperate need of volunteers are the schools in the outlying communities in Raleigh County.
Board of Education member Richard Jarrell pointed out that while parent-teacher organizations flourish on the elementary level, there is not a single PTO or PTA in a secondary school in Raleigh County.
“It breaks my heart,” he said. “We have already expelled 16 students this year, and we have three more this week. At one hearing a girl missed 30 days and her mom didn’t care. She was making excuses for the kid.”
He said he believes every school in the county should have a business, church or organization to partner with them to help out where needed, be it assisting with backpack food programs that feed impoverished students over the weekend or helping with elementary schools’ clothing closets, which are used to dress students who need clean clothes during the day when parents can’t be reached.
A woman working with an Independence Middle School after-school program aiming to decrease dropout rates at Independence High School said what they are doing is working.
“We sent out 132 letters and called 132 parents and only seven came. It was discouraging, but what we are doing for these kids is really helping. In 20 years they are going to be good parents. We are planting the seed,” she said.
“It is important to realize lot of these parents we are talking about live in stress every day,” said Brown. “We can’t judge that they should be able to give more when they themselves are struggling in their own mind and heart to survive.
“We need to focus on creating a society of good kids who are going to be good parents,” he added. “If we are waiting on the parents who are struggling to get out of bed, get off prescription drugs, or to go get a job, let alone get a GED, that is not realistic. We have to ask how our organizations can connect those adults who are doing positive things to the kids who need them.”
Those interested in getting involved in schools on a local level can contact the United Way of Southern West Virginia via e-mail at email@example.com.
For more information about the series of regional forums, visit www.wvhealthykids.org or contact Stephen Smith, executive director of West Virginia Healthy Kids, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another great way to get informed and get involved will be to attend the Senate’s Select Committee on Child Poverty’s meeting at 7 p.m. March 13 in Oak Hill at the Southern Appalachian Labor School (the old Oak Hill High School building).
— E-mail: email@example.com